Monday, April 22, 2013

A fast way to live longer

This morning I read in The Age how a major component of our budget deficit was due to the huge cost of providing health services to an ageing population that uses record amounts of treatment.*

It seems Q&A is focusing on the health topic again tonight, from the sound of its promo.

Australians - especially those over 60 - are taking more drugs than ever before. 
But in between aired the brilliant documentary by British journalist Michael Mosley examining the theory that fasting increases your life expectancy – and dramatically improves your health in the process. He found some amazingly successful results.

None of these are new ideas but the timing and juxtaposition of these reports raises some interesting possibilities: Would a program of fasting work better than a diet of blood pressure and anti-cholesterol drugs, to say nothing of Beta Blockers and diet pills. And if fasting becomes the latest fad, will it save us some money, not just in subsidised drugs but in unnecessary surgery and cancer treatments?

The idea of eating less to live longer has been discussed since 1934 at least, when Mary Crowell and Clive McCay of Cornell University observed that laboratory rats fed a severely reduced calorie diet while maintaining micronutrient levels resulted in life spans of up to twice as long as otherwise expected.

In 1993 the Calorie Restriction Society International was established in the US. It promotes the idea of eating smarter, getting maximum nutrients from minimum calories – which echoes diets such as those promoted to keep cancer patients healthy when their appetites were low.
SO - lots of vegetables, avoid fats and sugars and processed foods, and carefully selected proteins, both in terms of type and volume.

Pretty common-sense, really.

Much of the society's inspiration was drawn from Brian M. Delaney, who wrote a biography of Roy Walford, who was a pioneering advocate of calorific restriction. Delaney was so impressed he also cut his calorie intake by 20%.

In 1989 the University of Wisconsin began work on a 20-year study on rhesus monkeys, feeding one group up to 30% less than the control group; they found those eating less lived longer. However, while these results were met with positive interest in 2009, by 2012 the relevance of these finding for humans was being questioned.

However, in India, people have been eating like this for centuries – and I'm not just talking about the poverty. I remember meeting several people who told me they fasted on a regular basis and felt much better for it; it was party a religious experience, but they were well aware of the health benefits, too.

Michael Mosley's program first aired in the UK last August (2012) and has run in the US too.

He compared a few methods of reducing calories:

  • A restrictive diet, when 'empty' calories are avoided; 
  • Fasting for 3-4 days at a time
  • Alternate-day fasting, when you only eat a light lunch (500 calories) on every other day.
  • The 5:2 diet, when you reduce your calories on two days and eat normally for the other five.
Eating less - without malnutrition - has major health benefits.
All had benefits that included reduced blood-sugar levels (so cutting the risk of diabetes); lower levels of an indicator that can increase your risk of cancer; lower cholesterol and a reduction in both body weight and body fat.

So for him it was simply a matter of choosing one that suited his lifestyle.

As one review of the program described it, it was a bit of a Goldilocks adventure to find a fast that was 'just right': a four-day fast wasn't sustainable for the long-term, and an alternate day fast cramped his social life. 

His personal favourite was the Homesis theory from Dr. Mark Mattson at Maryland's National Institute on Aging, which advocates a balance of fasting and eating normally.

Hormesis, Mosley writes in his book The Fast Diet, is "the idea that when a human … is exposed to a stress or toxin, it can toughen them up."

So, much like exercise causes small tears in muscles that eventually make them stronger, short periods of fasting can also do a body good, Mosley claims.  Evidence from his research suggests that this form of dieting can not only help with weight loss, but can also turn on "repair genes" that reduce the risk for heart disease, diabetes and some forms of cancer.

It can even help repair brain cells, as research on rats has found their brain cells rejuvenate faster when they are, well, fasting.

It can even make you feel happier.

Dr. Mark Mattson, a professor of neuroscience at John Hopkins University in Baltimore, discovered that after a 'feast or famine' eating pattern, the body and brain respond to each other in fascinating ways.

"What they found in rats is when they are deprived of food their brains start producing a protein called brain derived neuro-traffic factor," Mattson said. "What this does is it makes you feel happier and what it also appears to do is make you smarter."

As many mothers would tell children nagging for their dinner, it's OK to be hungry for a little while.

"Your body needs periods of time when you're not eating," he said. "It's during the times you're not that your body gets on with the spring cleaning. Six to eight hours of not eating isn't a bad thing every so often."

You might think that after a day or so of not eating, people would binge, but those who tried it found their appetites had dropped and they tended to just eat normally again. Although the shots of him gorging himself on burgers while researching this in the US might suggest otherwise.

When the program was made, Mosley had settled on a pattern of fasting for one day a week, and make it clear that the plan wasn't for everyone: pregnant women, diabetics, or anyone with a history of eating disorders, for example.

But for him – a 50-something with a medical background who was told at 53 he had the same risk as a 60-year-old of getting diabetes – it's working well for now, at least.

And, Mosley said, he wouldn't push something he didn't feel was safe: "I'm extremely cautious about this stuff."


Follow-up blogs:

A family tries the diet out and keeps a blog on the experience:

A 75-year old teacher of bread making (!) also writes about his trials in his blog:

The facebook page:

* Grattan Institute chief executive John Daley: "The big driver, costing $30 billion, is extra spending on health. Contrary to popular belief, the extra spending isn't being driven by ageing. It's that compared to 10 years ago today's 60-year-olds see the doctor more often, have more tests, face more operations and take more drugs." SEE: Full report in The Age.

1 comment:

  1. After hitting 50 and gradually creeping up in kilos and having a couple of blood tests that showed slightly elevated sugar levels, I've now been trying the 5:2 diet for about 5 weeks. I've lost about 3 kgs eating 500-600 calories on fast days and pretty much the same as I used to on the other 5. Part of it is just teaching your body to deal with being hungry - something most of us now feel slightly afraid of - as in 'I'd better eat something now so I don't feel hungry later'. I'm not sure I feel happier but I'm glad my clothes and bras fit properly again.